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Aren’t nuclear weapons harmful, too?

December 4, 2011

The global treaty prohibiting cluster munitions, which entered into force last August, was pursued on the basis that such weapons cause “unacceptable harm.” Similarly, the treaty outlawing anti-personnel landmines, negotiated a decade earlier, was borne from widespread public concern for the overwhelmingly civilian victims of those conventional arms.

The two treaties were achieved as a result of civil society and “likeminded nations” working in partnership to resolve an obvious and urgent humanitarian problem. Now many of the same governments and campaigners involved in those initiatives are turning their attention to an equally pressing task: banning nuclear arms.

In recent years, a growing number of nations have expressed dissatisfaction at the slow rate of progress towards nuclear disarmament. The arms control approach, which focuses on “managing” the threat rather than eliminating it, is floundering. With some nations pursuing nuclear arms in defiance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the already-armed investing billions in the modernization of their arsenals, a new approach is clearly needed.

At last year’s review conference of the four-decade-old NPT, in New York, a record number of states called for work to begin on a nuclear weapons convention – a treaty which, if successful, would make the aspiration of abolition a reality. By consensus, the conference acknowledged, first the first time, the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons, and the need to comply, at all times, with applicable international law.

The movement for a nuclear weapons ban received a further boost last week when national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from around the globe adopted a historic resolution appealing to all states to “pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement.”

Initiated by Australia, Norway and Japan, the resolution expressed deep concern about “the destructive power of nuclear weapons,” “the unspeakable human suffering they cause,” and “the threat they pose to the environment and to future generations.” It noted the impossibility of providing adequate relief in the event of a nuclear confrontation, and the fundamental incompatibility of nuclear weapons with international law.

This is not the first time the Red Cross has involved itself in this field – its doctors were among the first on the scene in Hiroshima, and the movement adopted several pro-disarmament resolutions during the Cold War, condemning the massive build-up of nuclear arms. But last week’s resolution signifies an important new commitment to the cause at a crucial moment. It could be a game-changer in the quest for a global ban.

The resolution follows a landmark speech last April by Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which he declared that the existence of nuclear weapons “poses some of the most profound questions about the point at which the rights of states must yield to the interests of humanity, the capacity of our species to master the technology it creates, and the reach of international humanitarian law.”

Other major international organizations would do well to follow the Red Cross’ lead. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for example, could raise public awareness about this enormous, immediate threat to our most fundamental of all human rights – the right to life. Greenpeace could re-engage in the field, which it all but abandoned a few years ago (with the exception of a few chapters).

Pursuing the elimination of nuclear weapons would also fit well with Oxfam International’s new campaign focus: food security for the world’s poor. Recent research by climate scientists shows that the use of even a small number of nuclear weapons would lead to devastating agricultural collapse across the globe (in addition to inflicting millions of immediate deaths).

All of these groups have a role to play in reshaping the debate – from one focused on Cold War notions of deterrence and military dominance to one concerned about the potential for these weapons to inflict grave humanitarian and environmental harm. Unless we radically alter our trajectory now and move expeditiously towards a nuclear weapons ban, the use one day of these ultimate instruments of terror seems all but inevitable.

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